Saturday, November 20, 2004


Edited by Henry Hardy

Cambridge University Press. $40, 755 pages, illus.


When told that a Jew had become Lord Mayor of Dublin, the late great aphorist Sam Goldwyn is said to have characteristically exclaimed “Only in America!” Immigrants have certainly flourished in the United States, but it is hard to think of any foreign-born American — with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger — who was accepted into the heart of his adopted country’s establishment as thoroughly as Sir Isaiah Berlin, O.M.

Born in Latvia in 1909, Berlin came to London in his 12th year and scarcely a decade later, after a brilliant record as a student at Oxford University, was awarded that most prestigious of British academic awards, a Fellowship of All Souls College. Not only was he still in his early 20s when this glittering prize came his way, but he was the first Jew to penetrate this bastion of Oxonian distinction.

Moving with apparent ease between the groves of academe and the corridors of power, Isaiah Berlin was fundamentally a popularizer and synthesizer of great ideas rather than an original thinker. Yet such was the distinctiveness of his style and force of his chosen insights that he, rather than the obscure European thinkers from whom he had borrowed, became indelibly associated with such dialectics as positive versus negative liberty and hedgehogs versus foxes.

In such thinkers as Alexander Herzen, Berlin rediscovered the historical inevitability of nationalism, which he saw, correctly as it turned out, as a viable counter-force to the Communist totalitarianism rampant in the century in which he lived.

We know Berlin for his lectures, essays and books; listeners to the BBC in its radio heyday heard his strongly accented English and rapid-fire style of delivery as he discussed heavy topics; and the British government gained much inside knowledge about its all-important chief ally from the dispatches Berlin sent them when he was attached to the British Embassy in Washington. Now, with the publication of the first of a projected series of volumes of his letters, we get the most intimate glimpse yet of this extraordinary phenomenon.

Although an authorized biography of Berlin by Michael Ignatieff appeared not long after his death in 1997, it was too slight and too straitened by the relationship that had developed between author and subject to give the reader sufficient insight into Berlin’s complex make-up.

In this thick volume of letters, the earliest ones written when he was still in his teens and the latest as he completed his wartime assignment in the United States and the Soviet Union in his mid-30s, that truly multicultural, multilingual polymath speaks out, loud — and free from the burdens of accent, speech impediments, and rushed delivery — clear.

In many ways, the heart of the book — and not just for Washingtonians — is in the letters written when Berlin was First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington during World War II. As a charming, socially-gifted bachelor, he was much in demand by Washington hostesses and he amusingly blends the insights gleaned at dinner parties with those acquired at labor union conferences, press briefings, and congressional hearings.

Readers familiar with the formal “Dispatches from Washington” which so impressed Winston Churchill and which were published in book form two decades ago will find these letters very different. While both are polished, intuitive, and packed with insights, the less formal nature of the letters allows Berlin’s eye and ear to range further afield and generally to weigh his words less than he necessarily had to do in government dispatches.

Certainly, wartime Washington, emerging from its still evident cocoon of Southern sleepiness, is superbly evoked by Berlin’s epistolary pen. Surprisingly chauvinist in his Britishness — he asserts British superiority to everything American over and over again — he nonetheless can be wickedly deflating, as when he says that the very size of the gargantuan British presence in Washington has made anti-British feeling there greater than anywhere else in the United States.

A significant portion of the letters Berlin wrote in these years is devoted to Zionism, to which he was always committed. (He was very close to Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, and his many accounts in these pages of this brilliant man provide a unique portrait.) Those letters dealing with Berlin’s visit to British-ruled Palestine in 1937 make for compelling reading and reveal the conflict between his deep devotion to his adopted country and his abhorrence of its policy towards a cause he held dear.

Later on, in his propaganda work for Britain in the United States, that same conflict will continue to give him trouble, as is apparent in letters and in a long appendix entitled “Zionist Politics in Wartime Washington.” (This fascinating, immensely detailed account is itself worth the price of the book for its portrait of a bygone era and its conflicts, intelligently and honestly rendered.) It is apparent throughout this volume that Berlin was particularly adept at juggling his brief as a British civil servant with his quite active Zionism, never compromising either his principles or his duty.

It is curious to note that for all Berlin’s lifelong abhorrence of Communism, fueled by witnessing some of its unpleasant manifestations as a child in Petrograd as well as by more mature consideration of Marxism and its depredations, he was not averse to the company of its adherents. His traveling companion to the United States early in World War II was none other than Guy Burgess and some of his close friends at Oxford were Communists. Yet there is scant evidence in this correspondence of the passion one might have expected him to feel about their misguidedness.

Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of these letters, both during the ominous 1930s and the tumultuous early 1940s, is the over-emphasis on matters personal. Millions are being slaughtered in Europe (including members of his own family in Latvia); military personnel (including contemporaries and friends) are dying in large numbers; yet Berlin’s focus is on food, social life, and, occasionally, servants.

Even making allowances for the fact that many of these letters were written to assuage the anxieties of worried parents thousands of miles away, it is troubling to encounter so much concern about trivial health matters and just how much rich food Berlin is consuming.

Does he show a reciprocal concern for his parents, who after all were being bombed and subjected to food rationing that showed no regard for his father’s more serious gastric illness? Did he send them food parcels? Alas, the sage is revealed as being very much the spoiled only child of over-indulgent parents and the reader is left with the inescapable conclusion that such cosseting rendered him a monster of selfishness even though it was perhaps equally helpful in allowing him to achieve such a full measure of his doubtless great native potential.

Martin Rubin is a wrtier and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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